Written and directed by John Carney, Once is a scruffy, verite-like, loosely plotted romantic mood piece about a street musician played by Glen Hansard. He is recovering from a busted-up affair and works at his father's cluttered vacuum cleaner repair shop for extra income. Make that income, period.
Once is fictional and carefully scripted but feels totally unself-conscious and documentary-like in its plotting. One gets the feeling anything could happen at any moment -- or, for that matter, nothing at all.
Hansard, a member of the Irish Folk Rock band The Frames (as was Carney), supplies most of the music for Once.
These are rough-and-tumble, heart-on-the-sleeve ballads that strive -- and often succeed -- in wandering into the mystic a la Van Morrison or the Waterboys.
Using high-definition video cameras, Carney follows briskly as Hansard's thirtysomething bearded busker works the streets of Dublin. The film starts with an unedited chase of him pursuing a druggie who has stolen his change. That sets the film's organic "go with the flow" rhythmic style.
Young newcomer Markéta Irglová, who has recorded with Hansard previously but is new to screen acting, charmingly plays a young Czech immigrant taken with Hansard's singing and guitar playing. The playful ease of their repartee is constantly sweet and alluring.
When she learns he also repairs vacuum cleaners, for instance, she brings a broken one to him, dragging it along like a pet as they walk along an outdoor mall. They wind up at a music store where the clerk lets her play piano during quiet times, the camera quirkily shifting from piano to vacuum cleaner.
As a bond between the two is formed, the film truly finds its groove. With her help, he decides to record -- the kind of chance you get "once." He also learns about her life in a rooming house with her mother and young child.
Much of Once is no more than watching these two (and supporting musicians) play music and talk -- practicing, recording, listening to the results. If this doesn't sound promisingly cinematic, the surprise is just how entrancing it all is.
It helps that the songs, like "When Your Mind's Made Up" and "Say It to Me Now," build in swaying power and have a rootsy, earnest authenticity that seems truthful rather than calculated. I'd expect to hear them on WNKU, for instance. It's refreshing to hear a "musical" trust such songs to speak for themselves rather than be overproduced and fussed-over a la a recent Hollywood musical about young people, Rent.
But mirroring the music's truthful sensibility is the relationship between the two principal characters/actors (it's hard to separate the characters from the actors). Their interaction is so warmly natural, so ideal, that you wish they'd fall in love. Yet this isn't by any means a sentimental love story -- you don't know where their relationship will go.
Overall, Once is a low-key movie that depicts Dublin -- supposedly one of Europe's more bustling cities -- as a hip, laid-back bohemia like Portland, Ore., or Asheville, N.C. The artists and shopkeepers seem to all know each other and share an understanding about life's meaning: It's about liking music!
This leads to a number of delightful scenes driven by the agreeable personalities of the music-oriented secondary characters. Hansard takes Irglova to a Folk-song party where friendly guests share tunes. In another scene, the producer of his recording session takes Hansard out on a drive to listen to the results, pleased to able to show off the good work.
Carney has said the films of John Cassavetes were an influence in their DIY nature. Actually, Cassavetes' films like Husbands and Faces seem much too emotionally turbulent for Carney's quiet, bittersweet tone.
But Carney also admires Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, which do seem like Once. That means, one presumes, we can look forward to a sequel eventually. That's good. I certainly would be up for Twice. Grade: A-